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Do We Need to Change Teacher Observation?

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When in graduate schools learning the facets of school leadership, prospective school leaders were all trained "supervision."  The term, itself, implies watching and directing someone else's actions. More subtly in our field, the term has come to be synonymous with the responsibility to observe and evaluate teachers. We were taught methods of observation and evaluation. More recently, some have been retrained in newer methods as part of Race to the Top.  Because teachers have always been observed and evaluated, we wonder...as do many...why the result isn't a powerfully improved, extraordinary field of top-notch educators who continue to grow and learn and improve year by year. Or do they? Why, if in some situations, as much as 60% and in others 100% of a teacher's annual evaluation is based upon what a supervisor observed in a classroom, haven't we, as a field, knocked it out of the park? 

There are schools and districts across the country that are flourishing as they step into the 21st century with excitement, high morale, courage, and collaboration, inclusive conversations and powerful vision. Is that a result of the observation process? There are also schools, urban and rural that continue to face the same challenges they always have with limited financial resources and high poverty in their communities.  Those schools, even those that are failing, may not be a result of the quality of the teaching, but of the circumstances they face. How will we know?

Let's return to the question of teacher improvement. Principals are trained how to have conversations before and after the observation. They are trained what to do while observing. But what is truly accomplished? Certainly there is a level of accountability measured. To have an employee aware that they will be observed doing their job is an important practice in any industry.  But our stated goal is to improve instruction in order to improve student achievement.  We want to catch teachers doing good work and highlight it and we want to note what they may need to do better, and lead them through it.  We acknowledge that second part is rarely done systematically with an investment of time and money, it is the expressed intention. 

It occurred to us what if the whole idea of observation is wrong? We turned to science for an answer and discovered Erwin Schroedinger and Werner Heisenberg. Both physicists, you might wonder what they may contribute to our question.  As it turns out, they developed an idea (here oversimplified certainly) that the act of observing something changes the nature of what is being observed. So in the scientific world, if a particle of some kind that exists in the dark is to be studied, some form of light will have to be introduced in order to see it, thus affecting its nature, its very behavior. Heisenberg is noted for the "uncertainty principal" in which observation changes the nature of what is being measured. Shroedinger developed the now well known paradox called "Schroedinger's Cat" which provides similar uncertainty in the observation process.  Observing something changes how it behaves. We may be able to get close, but it isn't as it is when it is not being observed. Might that be true enough in our observation process that we need to rethink its value?

We always have taken into account that the presence of an observer changes the classroom dynamic. The teacher may be a bit nervous, the students may not act as they normally do, the lesson may be constructed in a way to meet the observer's needs more than the needs of the class...the list continues.  But what if it has an even deeper affect?  What if the entire act of observing changes everything about the observed?  What if it sets up such a different environment, even one in which the participants are unaware, that the act of observing is without merit?  What if we have placed enormous value on the observation and evaluation process and been wrong?

Learning is a psychological act.  For this we turn to Albert Bandura and four of his ideas about mastering occupational roles. 

Mastery Modeling:
Much social learning occurs either deliberately or inadvertently by observing the actual behavior of others and the consequences (p. 440).

Instructive Modeling:
Modeling influences must be designed to build a sense of personal efficacy as well as to convey knowledge about rules and strategies.  The impact of modeling on beliefs about one's capabilities is greatly increased by perceived similarity to the models (p. 441). )

Guided Skill Perfection:
After trainees understand the new skills, they need guidance about how to translate abstract rules into concrete courses of action and opportunities to perfect their skills (p.443). 

Guided Skill Perfection Transfer Training by Self-Directed Success:
Mastery modeling is now increasingly used to develop competencies.  But its potential is not fully realized if training programs do not provide sufficient practice to achieve proficiency in the modeled skills or if they lack an adequate transfer program that helps people to experience success with their new skills in their natural environment (p.444).

Taking  Heisenberg, Schroedinger, and Bandura into account...what if observation and evaluation was the responsibility of the teacher?  What if together, with the building and district leadership, teachers agreed on the focus for growth for the year? It takes time to learn, apply, reflect, adjust, try again, and measure success.  What if the plans for learning came from the teachers and the school leader's role was to design the opportunities for Mastery Modeling, Instructive Modeling, Guided Skill Perfection, and Guided Skill Perfection Transfer Training by Self-Directed Success?  What would it feel like in a school in which everyone was learning the same thing and from each other and from the same experts in the field? How would that impact the entire school or district differently from the individual observations done now in the long accepted process?

We have negotiated boundaries around observation and evaluation.  We have laws and mandates we must follow. It is time for them to change.  Maybe there can be some kind of shift, even within existing boundaries, that can allow for newer and richer and more worthwhile processes to emerge. Maybe we could pilot a model by making the boundaries permeable. 

Districts and schools are different.  But the idea is worth a thought...is the way we invest our time in this observation process worth it?  Does it result in the improvement we intend?  How can we explore these questions and make the observation and evaluation process worth everyone's time?  It is a question worthy of serious dialogue.

Bandura, Albert. (1997).  Self-efficacy:  the exercise of control.  New York:  W.H. Freeman and Company

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